CLUSTERING GRADES BY SCHOOL WON'T WORK

April 18, 2002 12:00 am

With the pending closure of Riveria Elementary School and the shuffling of students, the La Grande School District is set to embark on a plan to study new school boundaries or group kids according to age at certain schools. The district needs to look more closely at districts that have experienced clustering students by age at certain schools. The concept might sound good, but in reality it isn't good for students, for families or for schools.

MORE THAN 20 years ago the Redmond School District did just that. The district had a bunch of old school buildings, similar to what La Grande has. Only a couple of the buildings had gymnasiums, unlike

La Grande's. So the district figured that it would be easier to base placement of grades upon what the schools could accommodate. The district picked two schools for grades 1-3, then added kindergarten when it was mandated by the state. It sent all of its fourth-graders to another school and all of its fifth- and sixth-graders to another school. None of the schools developed an identity and no students developed ties to their schools because they were shifted from one building to another after one, two or three years — all before they moved on to middle and high school.

The hop-skip-and-jump format resulted in families with more than one child having youngsters in numerous schools. Parent-teacher organizations, school carnivals and other volunteer-driven events, even school music programs, were a challenge. Parents and kids were simply stretched to too many buildings. Too, kids' socialization skills were thwarted because they didn't have other children but kids their own age to interact with. The older kids didn't have to set examples. Younger kids had no older kids to emulate.

THE CONCEPT FELL by the wayside once the community began growing and was forced to seek approval of bond measures to build new elementary and middle schools. One of the old schools was converted into an alternative school and another was sold to the county library district for renovation as the community's new library. The fragmentation of students went away, and the community, the schools and the students were the better for it.

The La Grande district is trying to find ways to deal with declining enrollment and school buildings that need major overhauls. Closing Riveria at the end of this school year is the first step in the process. Figuring out how to set boundaries for the remaining elementary schools is the next step.

Clustering students by grade in specific buildings would avoid the boundary question, but the district needs to consider all the ramifications that would result from such a plan. Serious consideration and study is needed before the district moves that direction.

KIDS NEED SCHOOL ties. Schools need families. The district would be doing kids, families and its own schools a disservice if it were to move ahead with a plan to cluster students by grade.